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Published: January 14th 2010
I like Axum. Small and relaxed it allows me to comfortably recharge after the Simien Mountains and the ridiculously bumpy (though scenically beautiful) journey from Debark. The town is of great significance to Ethiopians because it was the Kingdom of Axum that first brought Christianity to the country after King Ezana converted in the first half of the fourth century AD. Locals passionately believe the Ark of the Covenant resides in the St. Mary of Zion church here, although I skip going inside because the church is a recent, and not especially attractive, reconstruction.
The biggest draws for me are the numerous stellae here; large, decoratively carved obelisks marking various important Axumite tombs (98% of which remain un-excavated). The largest is 33m high (or long seeing as it promptly collapsed when attempts were made to erect it) and weighs 517 tonnes. As I patrol the main field my attention is drawn by a young boy.
"Meeser, gimme pen."
"Haha, no! You know it's more polite if you say please."
"Photo? Gimme 3Birr. Gimme camera. Gimme plastique..."
He is doggedly determined to exact something tangible from me and I find such unabashed insistence quite comical. I do not begrudge him his directness or for chancing his arm. Ethiopia may still be a poor country and Bob Geldof, Bono and co. may continue to drown us with hunger porn, and the white saviour myth, but the days of widespread famine from the years of red rule under the Derg are mercifully well in the past. Yet children know they can still get stuff from foreigners - pens for example are such a frequent request because westerners like to believe they will be used to help these kids study. There is no real annoyance from the child upon my refusal. It seems more an attitude of 'what's the harm in trying?' along perhaps with the novelty of interacting with an odd looking foreigner.
From Axum I work my way slowly round to and down to Lalibela. On the way I pass Adwa, the location of the heaviest military defeat inflicted on a colonial power in Africa, where Emperor Menelik II squashed a 20,000 strong Italians invasion force in 1896. This victory ensured that Ethiopia remained one of
only two African nations to have avoided colonisation at the start of the twentieth century, the other being the slave state of Liberia.
Further on the bus glides past Adigrat, an abundance of military trucks indicating our proximity to Eritrea. I had desperately wanted to visit this impoverished country but the border is still contested following a thirty year war of independence from Ethiopia (Africa's longest recorded continuous conflict) and subsequent border dispute in 1998, described as like "two bald men fighting over a comb" because of the insignificance of the land. Two million landmines lined the border at the conflict's peak. The borders with Sudan and Djibouti are also firmly closed, because of smuggling issues and another petty territorial scuffle respectively, denying me overland access of any kind.
I mournfully move on to Mekele, kill a couple of days and head to Woldia, a journey made interesting purely because of the company. Next to me sits a self-proclaimed soldier of Christianity who is immensely proud of Lucy's discovery in his country yet remains a firm believer in Creationism. He has a small crucifix symbol carved into his forehead. Such a description might sound alarming but
he is a very friendly and soft spoken young man. He is also keenly inquisitive. Besides the usual name, age, profession, he asks me questions ranging from what is the correct pronunciation of 'intestines', what is the name of China's currency, and how do you express your love to a beautiful but deaf and blind woman? For some unfathomable reason he admires my feeble facial fuzz and suggests, with complete seriousness, that I grow it out into a long beard in order to look like...
"What's the name of the guy in the east who America is looking for?"
"Osama bin Laden?!"
"Yes! Osama bin Laden."
From Woldia it’s another slow bus journey to Lalibela. The bus is so full that the last passengers must clamber over the driver's seat in order to squeeze in. Somehow almost everyone at the front around me still manages to fall asleep. They are actually aided by the density of flesh as they pass out at all sorts of bizarre angles across each other, resembling a game of pick-up-sticks. Should one awaken the rest would all immediately be disturbed. The immense weight we carry makes for an absorbing battle
The (not so) Great Stelle
The biggest of the bunch. But too big, it was never successfully erected.
between man, machine and gravity on the final climb into Lalibela as our driver uses all his persuasive pedal power to coax the overloaded bus, squealing with agony the entire way, up this steep slope.
I've timed my visit to Lalibela to coincide with the Ethiopian Christmas; Leddet. A sleepy town of 15,000 people, Lalibela swells up with between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors at this time of year. The Orthodox Christian majority of the country's population view Lalibela as a second Jerusalem due to its fantastic rock-hewn churches, carved out of the mountain in the twelfth century to protect them from being spotted or, if found, destroyed by Muslim raiders. They are little known outside Ethiopia.
After exploring the churches during my first afternoon I return after dinner to the oldest and most holy, Bet Maryam, for the main ceremony on the eve of Leddet. Persuading the guard to let me into the "full" church complex I wade across the floor, transformed from rocky ground into a pale rippling sea of cloth covered pilgrims, and ascend up to the surrounding cliffs where there appears to be a small amount of space. One big advantage of solitary
travel is the hospitality shown by locals who take interest in/pity on your lonely predicament. Thus I am soon dragged into a tiny sliver of lumpy space by a bunch of buoyant and jovial young guys and spend the entire night perched there observing the mystical proceedings below.
A steady drum beat begins, accompanied by chanting in Ge'ez (a rough cultural equivalent of Latin). This music periodically quickens as does the rhythmical, swaying dance of the priests, moving like cobras caught in the snake charmer's spell. Each time the pace increases the vast assembled crowds clap and hoot with ecstatic enthusiasm. Throughout the night this continues in waves, broken up by a number of speeches, until at about 3am the final climax arrives and the whole place blossoms into an undulating field of radiant light as thousands upon thousands of candles blaze.
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